Five uses, one condemned, all misanalyzed

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Arnold Zwicky recently wrote about the word once in an important post on what he calls "temporary potential ambiguity" (a very useful concept indeed). His target was the strange practice among prescriptivists of deprecating what he calls the "subordinator" use of once, by which he means the use where it is immediately followed by a clause complement, as in Once you've finished the report, bring it to me immediately. The prescriptivists object to that, but don't seem to mind the others at all. I want to refine Arnold's analysis a bit — in a way that only strengthens his general point. He says there are three main uses of once. I put the number at five well-established different uses. And interestingly, if I'm right about them, this word has been completely misanalyzed by all grammarians so far.

The simple version of the traditional position is that once is an adverb, and in the objectionable use it's a subordinating conjunction. I claim all of this is wrong. Neither the traditional grammarians nor the usage purists have managed to get anything right about this multi-talented word.

I'll use slightly different terminology from Arnold's (though that in itself doesn't matter much). In terms of the definition I assume for the term "subordinator" (which Arnold intended as a name for what is roughly the function of what are traditionally called "subordinating conjunctions"), I'm going to say once is never a subordinator. I take "subordinator" to be the name of a category of words (often called "complementizers") including that, whether, and some uses of if and for. Even what Arnold calls "subordinator once" is not a subordinator in this sense.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, here is a run-down of the five alter egos of this remarkable word, separated out for your perusal and given names for reference:

1. Numerical once. This is illustrated by You should try it at least once. Here it means "one time". Traditional grammarians invariably treat it as an adverb, because of course in try it once it modifies a verb (the verb try). Now, it is the rather surprising thesis of a 2007 article written by John Payne, Rodney Huddleston, and (oui, c'est moi) Geoffrey K. Pullum ("Fusion of functions: The syntax of once, twice, and thrice", in the Journal of Linguistics 43: 565-603) is that this once is actually a determinative like one or a(n) or this or the (we give copious justification in the paper).

However, it is a rather special determinative: it does not function as just a Determiner of a noun phrase; it functions as Determiner and Head simultaneously. There are other such determinatives. None is an example. No is the related form that is used as a Determiner with a Head, as in no bananas. None is the form that is used when the noun can be left tacitly understood and the determinative word takes on the Head role as well as the Determinative role. Nobody is another example. Don't imagine that it is a contraction of no body. Neither the grammar nor the meaning supports that. Nobody is a compound determinative that can make up a whole noun phrase because it fills the Determiner function and the Head function.

How do we know it's not a pronoun? Well, you can't modify pronouns with adverbs in any normal kind of construction. *Absolutely they is not an ordinary grammatical noun phrase. Yet absolutely nobody is fine. Exactly as grammatical as absolutely no bananas. That's because no is one of the determinatives that can be modified by a preceding adverb, and none is a special form of the word no. We're saying these pairs of noun phrases are analogous:

every person    everyone
no person nobody
no thing nothing
this thing this
no place nowhere
no bananas none
one time once

Sentences like Once is enough are clearly somewhat problematic for the traditional view: they appear to have an adverb as subject. But then the same is true for Yesterday was fun. The traditional grammarians presumably have to blush and admit that sometimes words like once, yesterday, today, now, etc., seem sometimes to `act as nouns'. Our view is different. We say they can act as noun phrases, but that's not because they are nouns. Some might be, in some uses: presumably yesterday is a noun in all our yesterdays, because it is preceded by a genitive pronoun Determiner and it has a regular plural form ending in -s. But that doesn't parallel once. You have to take items individually. Our claim about items like once and nobody is that they are never pronouns or nouns. And they aren't adverbs either.

Numerical once can, however, be an adjective. And in this capacity it functions as both Modifier and Head. This is what we see in just this once, meaning "just this one time". This is a determinative, and you can't have two of those as Determiners in the same noun phrase, so here once has to be something other than a determinative. (And it would only make a puzzle to propose that it was an adverb. It isn't.) We say it is an adjective serving as both a Modifier of the Head in a noun phrase and as the Head itself, just like the adjective poor in the phrase the poor.

In addition, sometimes once is Head of a determinative phrase (as in at least once), and sometimes it is the Complement of the preposition than, as in the determinative phrase more than once (where more is the Head; for linguists, we give detailed structural diagrams of such phrases in the paper). All that's really relevant here is to note that no prescriptivists object to any of these various numerical uses of once.

2. Singulative once. We separate this use off because it is limited to certain contexts where it means "even one single time": Not once did he speak to me, or If you once let him in, he'll never leave. We treat this as a determinative that is limited to functioning as Determiner (we give the reasoning in the paper). I am not aware of any prescriptivist having objected to the singulative use of once.

3. Past once. There is a third use of once where it means "at one time in the past": He was once a professional musician. This, too, we treat as a compound determinative, occurring in a noun phrase adjunct specialized for one particular sense of "(at) one time (in the past)". Again, no prescriptivists object to this use.

4. Term-of-office once. There is yet another use of this word of many disguises, and it occurs in such phrases as the once mayor of New York David Dinkins. This could perhaps be treated as an adjective, but in our paper we chose instead to analyze it as another specialized use of the compound determinative, forming a nominal constituent that is used as an attributive modifier.

5. Sequential once. This is the most different one (and thereby, perhaps, hangs the basis for the prescriptivist objection). It has no real connection to the meaning "one time" which uses of once mostly share. This is the use that Zwicky called "subordinator once". But following Jespersen's recommendations in The Philosophy of Grammar in 1924, we take the view that nearly all the items traditional grammars call "subordinating conjunctions" are much better treated as prepositions that take clauses as their complements. We see a very close syntactic (as well as semantic) relationship between these three phrases:

  1. after the end of the play
  2. after the play has ended
  3. once the play has ended

Thus we analyze after as a preposition that takes either an NP or a clause as complement; and we analyze once as being just like after, except that it doesn't take an NP complement. Sequential once is a preposition. But like because, it is a preposition that never takes a noun phrase complement (compare because I love her and because of her with *because her). Like although, it is a preposition that takes only clauses and cannot occur without its complement (compare I did it although I love her with *I did it although).

Once is mostly a determinative and sometimes a preposition. It is never an adverb and never a subordinator (or "subordinating conjunction"). All the grammars and all the dictionaries are wrong. And as Arnold says, this fivefold array of special uses leads to virtually no chances of pernicious ambiguity, which means there is no rational basis for saying that use number 5 is bad and should be stamped out. It's time-wasting copy-editor silliness that doesn't improve anything; a doomed effort to keep tidy a situation that isn't tidy and cannot be made so. Languages are complicated, they are not neat and tidy and well organized. Deal with it.


  1. Ian Tindale said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 7:49 am

    Incidentally, this word is one that my mind will occasionally re-frame when seen in print, and I momentarily lose the association with the established pronunciation and start seeing it as a totally alien thing that begins with 'on' – 'onse?' 'once?'

  2. Steve in Spain said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 9:08 am

    Absolutely agreed that sequential once is beyond reproach but aren't you conceding too much when you say:

    "5. Sequential once. This is the most different one (and thereby, perhaps, hangs the basis for the prescriptivist objection). It has no real connection to the meaning "one time" which uses of once mostly share."

    I think there is a firm connection in meaning of sequential once to "one time." Perhaps the link may be found in the expression "at once" (e.g., "Do it at once!") meaning "immediately" or "with no separation in time." That same meaning is shared with sequential once. "I'll meet you once the play has ended" means "there will be no separation in time between the end of the play and my meeting you" or "I will meet you at once, when the play ends."

  3. Ransom said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 10:04 am

    I tend to associate use #5 with the singulative use, especially as in the second example you give: "If you once let him in, he'll never leave." Reverse that to "If once you let him in", and slice the "if". Presto– Sequential "once".

  4. ErWenn said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    I agree with pretty much everything you say here, but I should point out that "nobody" does seem to have a noun use, much in the same way as "yesterday" does in your "all our yesterdays" example. I'm thinking of the use where "nobody" refers to an unimportant or uninfluential person, as in "I'm a nobody," or "They're all nobodies".

    It's a minor point, and doesn't really have any bearing on your argument, but since you mentioned a similar noun use for "yesterday", I figured it makes sense to note this use as well.

  5. Mayson Lancaster said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    Once upon a time… #6?

  6. dr pepper said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    I'd say #5 is an ablative absolute with "once" standing in for "ut".

  7. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

    I've never seen the term-of-office _once_ before. What I expect there is _sometime_, as one sees, or used to see, on the title-pages of school textbooks under the author's name, e.g. "sometime Scholar of Trinity College, Oxford".

  8. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

    Of course, there's the title of T. H. White's novel, _The Once and Future King_, but I've always thought that sounded a little bit odd.

  9. Simon Cauchi said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    For what it's worth, my copy of Roget's Thesaurus (Penguin edition prepared by George Davidson, 2004) has a listing "former, ci-devant, onetime, erstwhile, sometime, ex-, retired, emeritus", from which the term-of-office _once_ is conspicuously absent. (And that's enough from me on this topic.)

  10. Robert F said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

    @dr pepper

    Ablative absolutes don't use ut. Ablative absolutes are phrases like 'mutatis mutandis', they don't need any function word because the case serves that purpose.

  11. Brett said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    @ Mayson Lancaster
    I'd say "once upon a time" is a preposition phrase (cf. up upon the wall).

  12. Jangari said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 1:09 am

    'Once upon a time' is just unhelpful. There are always going to be idiomatic uses of syntactic forms that differ from the regular, describable forms. Adding another type of 'once' on the basis of a single archaic use would trivialise the regularity and productiveness of the other 5 types.

    Moreover, you can't draw direct analogy with Latin constructions (ut, etc.,), because constructions are highly cross-linguistically diverse. What works as a description of a Latin construction will likely predict entirely incorrect patterns in another language.

    If I were to conflate any of these 5 forms of 'once' together, it'd be 3 and 4. In my opinion, saying 'once-Mayor of NY' is pretty much synonymous with 'Mayor (at one time in the past) of NY', it just needs a little bit of word order manipulation and probably should be prosodically marked. The only difference between them, I think, is morphosyntactic: type 3 introduces a NP, while 4 is embedded in an NP, prefixed to the head. Compare:

    He was once the/a mayor of NY
    He is *the/a once-mayor of NY

    The latter of these is kind of clunky anyway. But it seems as though the above typology is very semantically driven, and not so much syntactic. The only syntactic odd one out is this sequential 'once'.

  13. jmctrans said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 1:55 am

    I realize parallels with other languages may be unhelpful, but as Rone pointed out in the comments to the earlier post, Spanish has "una vez" (lit. "one time") for sequential once. I can add the unsensational news that Italian uses "una volta" and French uses "une fois" in the same way. German has a structure that coincides precisely with Fowler's analysis of the basic meaning: "wenn … einmal" (lit. if/when … one time) as in "es ist einfach, wenn du einmal das Geheimnis kennst" (it's simple, once you know the secret [lit. if once you know the secret]). If the sequential once has no connection with "one time" in English, any idea why it does appear to have one in these other languages? (My old Grévisse doesn't offer any sign that the "une fois" construction might be an imported Anglo-Saxon barbarism, which of course would solve the whole problem.) Anyhow, turning back again to the earlier post, it doesn't seem too likely that native speakers of these European languages would misunderstand the concept of "once you save the document, you can quit the program."

  14. Ian Tindale said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 3:28 am

    Here's a four times mayor:

  15. Robert said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 7:07 am

    'Once upon a time' is type 3. Compare 'Once upon a time there was a X' with 'Once there was a X', or 'Once in the distant past there was a X'. It's 'upon a time'. that's the idiomatic part.

  16. Chris said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 9:58 am

    I agree with Simon above: even Dan Brown wouldn't write "the once mayor of New York David Dinkins". It should be "the former mayor" or "David Dinkins, once mayor of New York", which is your sense 3. "Once mayor"s are no different than "once musician"s. (Without the quotes this sentence is Just Wrong – it needs to be "former" because "once" doesn't work like that.)

  17. Faith said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    I'm afraid you haven't convinced me. As someone who has heard and used what we might call the Dinkins-"once" my whole life (native English speaker, Canadian, well-educated), I would need more proof than "'once' doesn't work like that." It certainly does in my English, although I would probably be tempted to hyphenate it: "once-mayor of New York David Dinkins." I cannot explain why, because I wouldn't hyphenate "former mayor of New York David Dinkins". Could the Dinkins-"once" be regional?

  18. Alex said,

    September 22, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    @Chris, Faith: I'm English, and don't see anything the slightest odd about saying "the once-mayor" or "the once-musician". "Once-mayor David Appleby, 52…" sounds a little clunky, but not wrong.

    Also, just curious: where would "once an engineer, always an engineer" fit into this? It seems slightly different to #3 to me, but I'm not sure.

  19. Joel said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 4:04 am

    To the examples cited by jmctrans, I can add Romanian odată 'once' in the sequential usage. Is sequential 'once' a calque on pan-European usage?

  20. Chris said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    @Faith: If two native speakers have such strongly conflicting instincts on whether or not it works like that, that seems to me to point strongly to a regional or dialectical difference.

    I'm from the east coast of the United States, which is obviously a different dialect than Canada or England.

  21. James Wimberley said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    In re once upon a time: sadly Hollywood never greenlighted the sequel Twice upon a time in the West.

  22. Mark said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    I'd wouldn't put #3 and #4 but I'd extend the range of #4 to include things that others might put in category #3. Just googling for "the once * of" hits lots of phrases like: "the once thriving district of" and "the once-vaunted party of". It seems to me there are two "past" determinants.

    You could recast "He was once a professional musician" as "the once-professional musician X" with the slightly shifted meaning that he didn't cease to be a musician but only ceased to be professional. That's a useful form… you're constraining once to smaller part of the phrase.

    Hyphenation seems random in the examples I looked at. But then, it seems that is always the case with hyphenation… I guess we don't have a lot of solid rules for it in our heads anymore.

  23. Bob said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    Up here in Wisconsin (and maybe Minnesota), there's another "once" that you hear occasionally. "Come here once", or "Lemme see that once" seems (to this transplanted St. Louisan's ear) to treat "once" as meaning "for a short span of time".

    I've heard it used by native Wisconsinites of all ages, and most – but not all – of them seem to have grown up in smaller towns. Maybe it's a borrowing from Norwegian or German.

  24. gordonoz said,

    September 25, 2008 @ 9:31 am

    Try parsing this joke: Once a lord, always a lord, but once a knight (pun on 'night') and you're dead at forty.

  25. Eric S said,

    June 23, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    Steve in Spain: #5 does not mean "immediately", it simply means "after." It conveys no urgency. The example "Once you've finished the report, bring it to me immediately," uses the word "immediately" to convey urgency precisely because the "once" does not.

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